After church on bright, quiet summer Sundays, I would sit on the front steps of our house. Sometimes I’d see a big tour bus, painted with the words “James Brown and the Famous Flames” heading west to Chestertown and Charley Gray’s club. Going east a yellow school bus/charter bus carried a load of young people to Carr’s and/or Sparrows Beaches (two of Maryland’s segregation-era black beaches). On any given Sunday they might see Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner, the Shirelles and the Marvelettes. I was not one of them.
“You’re not going,” my father informed me, and only once. There was no debating Mr. Brown once he put his foot down. Too much grown-up fun was being had, and he wasn’t ready for his girl child to be a part of it. I’d have to wait for the next day’s gossip to find out who sat with whom in the back in the dark on the way home.
A couple of years later he relented. Or maybe my mother finally convinced him that it was time. And when he changed his mind, he changed it big. This was no summer Sunday bus ride to the beach – it was the Baltimore Civic Center and the Temptations! Still he had his conditions. My date (a boy one year ahead of me in school) had to meet me in Baltimore at the home of my best friend’s mother. She was the surrogate gatekeeper – her job was to make sure the boy didn’t show up with a half-pint of liquid persuasion or that my skirt was the same length as when I left home.
That skirt and blouse were classic Villager – the Abercrombie & Fitch of our time. And any girl of the era knew the label – even if she dressed like a foot soldier for SNCC or an agitator for SDS or the Weather Underground. I wore my hair in a modified Diana Ross bob, with a set of full bangs instead of her signature side-sweep over one eye. That evening both my date and I were Ebony magazine, middle-class stylish.
Inside the arena was packed with young people throbbing with anticipation. I don’t remember the opening act. It must have been Motown, though. They were a one-label music machine. One didn’t travel without at least one other member of the Hitsville USA family. I felt like the country cousin gone to the big city (which I was) but when the curtain rose on David, Eddie, Melvin, Otis and Paul we were all reduced to screaming, adoring teen-age girls.
In the vernacular of the day, the Temps were clean! None of that mismatched, old-t shirt and jeans, power to the people, keepin’ it real style of dressing – they wore suits with pocket handkerchiefs, ties and spit-shined shoes, (A well-tailored suit can make a tall lanky man look so good)! Over his trademark black-framed glasses, David’s process had been combed into a high, gleaming patent leather pompadour.
Later in the show, it took only seven iconic guitar notes to bring the crowd to its feet. “I’ve got sunshine…” David sang and the whole place erupted. From Eddie’s sweet falsetto to Melvin’s velvet bass, they rocked the place with their harmony. Everyone knew the Temptations could dance as well as they sang, but to see it in person was a wonder. Each fluid movement was sign language interpretation of the lyrics. “When it’s cold outside,” they sang, clutching their jackets across their chests. “My Girl,” David crooned, forming with his hands the coke bottle shape of the girl of his dreams. On that night, that girl was all of us. “Hey, hey, hey” – they bent low; circling one hand over the other and rolling up like a finely tuned dancing machine. And when they swayed into the Temptation Walk, it was really all over but the screaming!
I still have the 3.00 ticket from that first concert. I still have the memory that was a defining moment in my life. That day I felt as if I’d crossed a threshold, not quite into adulthood, but definitely past the line of sheltered girlhood into a young woman entering the Fifth Dimension’s “Age of Aquarius.”